At Work in the Garden of the Soul

Winchester Star, by Maria Hilman, published Aug. 6, 2013

Any gardener worth her trowel and watering can knows that a visit to a garden in full and radiant bloom — or even one under construction or in decline — is a spiritual trip.

Mythological references from the Garden of Eden to the ancient Greek Garden of the Hesperides and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon speak to the staying power and universality of the theme.

A love of digging in the dirt is hard-wired into our DNA, it seems.

So it should come as little surprise that the therapeutic value of gardening is becoming more recognized — even for groups such as combat veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other anxiety-related illnesses.

Helen Lake of Valley View Drive in Gainesboro, a master gardener, first sensed the power of “plant to people” healing when she worked decades ago with her husband Mike’s parents in the garden at their home off Fox Drive in Winchester.

“They passed on the passion to me, and it’s come full circle now,” says Lake, who is now retired in Frederick County after a 27-year career in the CIA. A native Russian speaker, Lake was active in U.S. intelligence efforts during the Cold War and met her husband on an overseas assignment.

At home, Lake found, like many before her, that gardening brought her a sense of peace and lowered her stress levels.

“I get my best ideas pulling weeds,” she said. “When I retired, I was determined I’d try to find a way to give back through my hobby.”

In 2005, she took the master gardener training class through the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Master gardeners, who undergo extensive training in horticulture over a three-month period, are tasked with passing on their skills and dispersing good growing tips to the community.

In the fall of 2010, Lake attended a symposium on Healing Through Gardening taught by Dr. Diane Relf, a retired professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, who spoke about horticultural therapy as a way of outreach to adults and children with emotional problems. Indeed, the principles apply to those with every condition from child development issues to dementia.

“For me, it was an ‘aha moment,’” Lake recalls. “I was drawn to the idea of helping veterans because I worked so closely with the military on a variety of projects in the CIA, and I’m comfortable with and understand them.”

After going through extensive training through the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver, Lake called the Veterans Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., and pitched the idea of offering a program there. In June 2011, she began teaching a horticultural therapy course she designed for veterans who were outpatients at the Hope Center.

Among the first projects, men with anger management and conflict resolution issues learned how to divide and repot mint.

“Mint gets overgrown, so it needs to divide and change,” she said. “We talk about how this relates to life, and how to tear the plants apart patiently. And the smell of mint has an effect on the senses. You’re not killing the plant by changing it. You’re giving it a chance to get better.”

She mentioned how one veteran referred to his plants as his “family.”

At Green Acres, a two-acre plot with a greenhouse at the medical center, she worked with veterans with PTSD, depression, alcohol and drug abuse issues and chronic diseases.

“For some, it was their first time outside in a garden, quietly watering or deadheading plants.”

For Lake, passing on her passion is gratifying beyond measure.

Like the heady stuff of myth and literature, taking people back to the garden, she says, “simply makes my heart swell.”